war, peace and philosophy

This week I got up to Volume III, Part II in War and Peace, and at the start of this section, Tolstoy enters into a bit of philosophising — or I should say re-enters, as he sort of went over this in an earlier section. In this part of the novel, Napoleon is invading Russia. His army is far superior to that of the Russians, which appears to be in comparative disarray as they are lacking a strong leader.

Tolstoy posits that everyone involved in that war believed they were acting for themselves, according to their own will, but, in reality, they were all “involuntary instruments of history”. In an earlier part of the novel (I forget where, and the book is much too big to go searching for this one particular chapter), Tolstoy wrote something about the great cascade of events that must take place for a war to start, and claims that it cannot be pinned on any one event or person.

If I remember correctly, the main gist of it was that no matter who insults who, or who wants to go conquesting where, there cannot be a war if great masses of people don’t enlist to become soldiers, and there is a great deal that must happen to lead to that.

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W&P progress report

I’ve been reading War and Peace for about two months now, so I thought it would be a good time to do a progress post.

About a month ago, I estimated how long it would take me to finish reading this epic tome, and based on my previous reading rate, it was somewhere close to two years. I’ve never taken more than a year to finish reading a book, let alone two years, so the prospect was quite terrifying to me. As such, I made an effort to read more, and have trimmed back the timeline to less than one and a half years. I’m hoping with all the public holidays coming up, I might get a bit of a boost to my reading, and cut this back further.

I’m currently somewhere in the middle of Part Two, which is all about military stuff — something about the campaign against Napoleon. However, knowing nothing about Napoleon (except that he is a significant historical figure, who was allegedly quite short), I’m not sure I’m following everything that’s happening. I kind of feel like I need a quick history lesson before I proceed, but, the weather being humid and lethargy-inducing, I don’t really feel like learning.

Hopefully the weather will mellow out soon, and I’ll consider it. Until then, I will just half-guess based on the notes at the back of the book. 

For some reason I expected this to be similar to Anna Karenina in the sense that I didn’t need to know historical facts to really grasp what’s going on. I suppose I really should have known better based on the title and the blurb.

I’m still enjoying it, though. Tolstoy’s writing is as excellent as I remember (although I do think Anna Karenina was much easier to read, but that’s probably because the concepts themselves were easier to understand than in War and Peace).

I think I’m also finally getting a grasp of who’s who, which is no easy task considering how many characters there are, multiplied by all the different names with which each character is referred to. It probably helps that I’m reading more than I was before. I suppose it’s all about keeping it in working memory (and keeping my memory working).

Well, on that note, I think I’ll go laze around somewhere cool, and do some more reading!

in which people are met, stories revealed

…and not much else.

I am willing to accept that I may be in the minority of people who are not completely enamoured with Mitch Albom’s novel The Five People You Meet in Heaven, but I must tell it like it is, and that is how it is. It is reassuring, however, to find that I’m not the only person to think that this was just ok, and nothing more (based on GoodReads reviews).

Apparently TFPYMIH spent over 90 weeks as a number 1 best-seller. Yes, that sounds excessive, and I’m not sure if the source was correct or what list this was, but either way, it has been a best-seller for multiple weeks, which is no small measure of astounding to someone who thought it was just ok.

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history books

I’ve been reading more of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures, and I’m finding it really awe-inspiring and thought-provoking. And I’m not even that much further in (haven’t been doing quite as much reading as I hoped, but such is life, and I read slowly).

Yesterday I read the part where some important guy (I forget who — one thing I’m having trouble with is all the names and titles in this book, but that happens with other books too, so it might just be me) — anyway, important guy (some higher-up in the military) is giving a speech to an assembly of staff from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and he commends them for their work. This is set in the years of WWII, so he tells them that they are helping the war effort as much as the soldiers on the frontlines.

And that got me thinking about how, in all my history lessons in school about the World Wars, no one ever mentions the researchers and scientists and engineers that had to invent and innovate and problem-solve to help “win the war”. I remember being told about the surge in women entering the workforce for jobs that involved things like sewing, cooking, and nursing; and I remember learning about large factories and warehouses that employed a lot of people; but I don’t remember being told about the recruitment drive for scientists and mathematicians.

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uncovering hidden figures

Last week-end, I started reading Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. It’s a non-fiction book about the African American women who, as the cover states, “helped win the space race”. I’m only a couple of chapters in, but I’m already fascinated by what I’ve learnt so far.

To be fair, I know very little about space exploration, engineering or physics, so it probably seems extra insightful to me, but it is thought-provoking in other ways too.

At the start, Shetterly writes about what it was like for her to grow up in Hampton, Virginia, with a father who was a NASA research scientist. There were a lot of African American women who worked there as “computers” — essentially mathematical geniuses — and to her, it was always normal to see African American women in this role. It was only later that it occurred to her how significant and under-acknowledged they were.

It really goes to show how one’s view of the world and the future can be shaped by the environment in which one grows up. It made me think of all the uproar many years ago about how girls’ toys were very limiting in their scope — always about fashion and beauty and cute things — but boys’ toys were more about action and adventure. It is easier to aspire to something greater if you are shown what is possible.

Early on, Shetterly introduces Dorothy Vaughan, one of the mathematical geniuses. Dorothy was originally a high school teacher, but applied for other jobs over the summer break to help provide for her family. One summer, in the midst of WWII, she applied for two jobs: one to launder uniforms for the military (a job that would, surprisingly, pay better than what she was getting as a teacher (African American teachers were paid much lower than their white counterparts)), and the other to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).

The book is written really well, in a conversational way, and I’m quite keen to keep reading, so this is all for this week’s post. I will almost certainly write more about this book as I read it.

Three Act Tragedy

The latest selection by my book club is Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie. Apart from a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories that I read while still in high school, I haven’t read many crime stories — or “whodunits” — before. I had friends who were really into this genre, but it never interested me. I was more of a fantasy/sci-fi person back then.

As such, I approached Three Act Tragedy with caution — I figured there would be red herrings all over the place, so I didn’t want to jump the gun and place all my suspicions on anyone too early. Eventually I decided I didn’t want to even try to guess the murderer (the crime in question was murder), and just go along with the story. However, a friend told me that half the fun of whodunits was trying to solve the mystery before the characters do, so I got back on the trail again.

In the end, I did not guess correctly. It was quite a surprise who the culprit was. I was going to try to write this post without spoilers, but I don’t think I can, so please be warned that there will be spoilers

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